In 2013, one of the biggest news in Toronto was the allegations of plagiarism for PhD dissertation by the then director of the Toronto School Board, Dr. Chris Spence, who resigned from his position. In 2017, according to the Globe and Mail, a disciplinary tribunal found him guilty of plagiarism and “recommended that his PhD be “cancelled and recalled.” It also recommended that the university expel Dr. Spence and a permanent notification be placed on his academic transcript”. The tribunal said that he submitted his dissertation, full-well aware that he was submitting material with plagiarized content.
During the four years between the initial allegations and the final verdict, I heard about the story in the news or references to it. The most memorable of all the news about Dr. Spence was his interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) morning program, Metro Morning. Listening to that interview, I thought of how the decisions we make change the course of our lives.
He was not the only person to have plagiarized his PhD and to be found guilty – sadly enough – that year. Annette Schavan, resigned from her position as Germany’s Minister of Education in that year because of allegations of plagiarism in her PhD dissertation. (Two years prior, Germany’s Defence Minister was stripped of his PhD and resigned from his position. Those were not glamorous years for the government of Germany!)
Both instances are equally wrong but not more so than similar cases of PhD plagiarism that are not as high-profile and that we do not hear about. What makes the misconduct of Chris Spencer and Annette Schavan more prominent was that they were important figures in the education systems of their respective countries. Not only were they to uphold high standards in the education of the next generation but also to become role models. They both failed in that.
I share these stories in this blog because I believe stories hammer home the message more than an abstract discussion of plagiarism and its consequences. I plan to use the same strategy as a professor. I will not only include the university’s honor code in the course syllabus but also recount in class such stories to give my students real life examples of plagiarism and consequences. In fact, one of the initial course assignments will be to write about a one-page story of plagiarism in academia or journalism, which is also rife with cases of plagiarism. There will also be a class discussion on the following points: why students might plagiarize, why it is a misconduct, what to do to prevent that from happening, what kind of support students might need from their professors, where to find additional resources and to whom to speak when needing assistance.
Student orientation at the beginning of academic year will most likely cover ethics. But I believe it is important to make time in my courses to emphasize the message and engage the students with the topic so the lesson can stick. Plagiarism might be a rare occurrence but when it does happen the consequences are devastating. Everybody loses. In the case of Chris Spencer and Annette Schavan, they were stripped of their PhDs, lost their prestigious positions, and let down those who looked up to them. Allotting course time to educate students on plagiarism will be a worthwhile investment towards making that rare occurrence from happening at all.